It has been a little over a month into the seventh season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), and if the first-third is any indication, this is shaping up to be one of the most competitive editions of the tournament so far.
Here are our takeaways:
Problems aplenty for Patna Pirates
Patna have been the most-successful team in PKL history, winning the title for three years in a row in season three, four and five. While they missed out on the playoffs last season, this has easily been their worst year so far.
They have been over-reliant on talisman Pardeep Narwal for a few seasons now, so opponents have finally started to realise that the best strategy to counter Pardeep is to form two lines of chains in defence to tackle him and consign him to the bench. Though Pardeep is second on the list of top point-scorers this season, he has spent an average of 17 minutes on the bench per match.
While Pardeep has been tackled a lot more this season, the bigger problem lies in the failure of the team's other raiders, who have been unable to revive him when he has been tackled. The defence, too, has suffered due to the absence of Surender Nada, Patna's big buy at the auction, who was ruled out of the season due to an injury.
Another factor that has contributed to their struggles is the poor utilisation of their overseas players. Despite having proven performers like Jang Kun Lee, Hadi Oshtorak and Mohammad Esmaeil Maghsoudlou Mahalli, Patna have not used them optimally as they have mostly employed them as second-choice options, which has resulted in them underperforming.
Fortune not favouring Gujarat's giants
Gujarat have won more matches in the PKL than any other team since their debut in the tournament in season five. They were shaping as one of the favourites before the tournament, having retained their nucleus from the last two seasons. In Manpreet Singh, they have one of the shrewdest coaches in the PKL.
They did get off to a blazing start, winning their first three matches this season. However, things have gone pear-shaped since then, with them losing each of their last six matches. For a team that had never lost even three matches on the trot before, they lost all the matches in their home leg. While they are currently at risk of missing out on the playoffs, their redemption lies in the stats: three of their six losses have been by a margin of three or fewer points. The other positive for them is that none of Parvesh Bhainswal, Sunil Kumar and Sachin Tanwar -- their core trio -- has been in particularly poor form. If the other members of the team cut down on their errors, this team has the goods to go all the way.
Pawan Kumar Sehrawat is anything but a one-season wonder
After impressing in his debut PKL season (season three), Sehrawat had a quiet time in seasons four and five. He then stunned all observers by starring in Bengaluru Bulls' run to the title last season. The MVP of last season, Sehrawat had an average raid point tally of 11.29 points per match, where he enjoyed solid support in the raiding department from Rohit Kumar and Kashiling Adake.
If those numbers were scarcely believable, he has been even more prolific this year despite arguably being a one-man show for his team. Sehrawat has only needed eight matches to cross a century of raid points at a prolific average of 11.44 points per match.
Sehrawat's display has ensured that Bengaluru have firmed up a place in the top half of the table irrespective of a shaky defence and lack of support raiders. His biggest asset remains the ability to deliver Super Raids -- no player has scored more Super Raids than him this season.
Bengal's rise down to more than their raiding troika
Few people thought Bengal would be second on the points table after a month as they let go of their experienced defensive duo of Surjeet Singh and Ran Singh before the auctions. Instead, they chose to retain Maninder Singh and make him captain. That move has paid off rich dividends as Maninder's calm leadership has helped the team's other two key raiders -- K Prapanjan and Mohammad Esmaeil Nabibakhsh -- to thrive. Unlike most other captains who are their team's main raiders, Maninder has looked to divide the raiding duties equally rather than doing the bulk of raiding for his team.
Bengal's average raid point tally of 19.22 has meant that their relatively inexperienced defence has not been under undue pressure as they have often opened up big leads and won by comfortable margins. While their raiding troika has been consistency personified, it is their defensive trio of Baldev Singh, Rinku Narwal and Jeeva Kumar that will hold the key to where they finish in the tournament.
Tamil (not so) Thalaivas?
Despite boasting an all-star team of Ajay Thakur, Rahul Chaudhari, Ran Singh, Manjeet Chhillar and Mohit Chhillar, Thalaivas are only in sixth place on the points table. By contrast, teams like Jaipur Pink Panthers and Dabang Delhi KC are firmly entrenched at the top of the points table despite being short of star names.
While Jaipur have been driven by youth and captain magnificent Deepak Niwas Hooda, Delhi have benefited by having almost the same team as last season to reap the rewards of continuity. A sixth-place finish will see Thalaivas sneak into the playoffs in the last qualification position but they have lost quite a few close matches this season, where they have choked under pressure in the dying stages of the matches. What must be particularly galling for them is that the biggest errors have come from their most experienced players.